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Robert H. Terrell, Municipal Judge

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Robert H. Terrell (1857-1925), the first African American judge in the Washington, D.C. Municipal Court, was also an educator, a writer and a law professor; and husband to activist, suffragist and educator Mary Church Terrell. Terrell was born in rural Orange, Virginia and attended grammar school in D.C., Groton Academy in Massachusetts before graduating cum laude from Harvard in 1884. In the following years he earned his LL.B. and LL.M. from Howard University, and then he passed the bar in 1893.


Close-up portrait of Judge Robert H. Terrell
Judge Robert H Terrell [photo from Black Past; in the public domain]

As he had difficulty finding work as a black attorney, he continued to teach, and also worked for five years as an auditor at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He worked in D.C. public schools, and was the principal at Preparatory School for Colored Youth when his future wife Mary Church came to work there as a teacher. In 1901, President Roosevelt appointed Terrell as justice of the peace in D.C., aided by the influence of Booker T. Washington, and then reappointed him in 1906 (Smith, 137-138). Terrell also served as a minister, lectured on African American history, and published a book based on the text of his lecture as well. “When Congress reorganized the court system in the District of Columbia in 1909, President Taft appointed Terrell to one of the judgeships on the municipal court of the District of Columbia (Smith, 138).” When it came time to reappoint Terrell in 1912, he encountered opposition because of his race. Thomas L. Jones, a contemporary of Terrell’s, led the support of other black lawyers for Terrell’s nomination, and Jones wrote to President Wilson that “[the] 90,000 colored population of [the] District [of Columbia] deserved to have a person of color on the bench” (Smith, 138). Ultimately, Terrell’s appointment was confirmed, and he was sworn in again in April 1914 and then won a fifth term in 1918 (Smith, 138). He continued working as a judge and taught law at Howard until 1925.

Terrell experienced a stroke in 1921, and died in 1925 after suffering another stroke. He was an inspiration to many other educators and lawyers. The District of Columbia school system named a secondary school after him; an evening law school named the Robert H. Terrell Law School ran from 1931 until it closed 1950, and has many distinguished alumni.


Plaque marking the former burial site of Robert H. Terrell. The plaque says, "Former Site Columbian Harmony Cemetery 1857-1959. Many distinguished black citizens including civil war veterans were buried in this cemetery. These bodies now rest in the new National Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery in Maryland."
Robert H. Terrell’s [former] burial site, at Rhode Island Ave. Metro stop [photo by J. Davis]

The Library holds Judge Terrell’s papers, and more information about them can be found here.

LC1161.R66az   Robert H. Terrell Law School. Miscellaneous printed matter.

E449.D16 vol. 18, no. 1 Terrell, Robert H. A Glance at the past and present of the Negro.

E185.86.G38 2000  Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of color : the Black elite, 1880-1920.

KF299.A35 S65 1993 Smith, J. Clay. Emancipation : the making of the black lawyer, 1844-1944.

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